A WIDOW'S WALK

By Marian Fontana

Simon & Schuster. 422 pp. $24

Like the Vietnam War, World War II, the Holocaust and other catastrophes, Sept. 11 has generated a new genre in contemporary literature. Everyone from Dan Rather to Jonathan Safran Foer to the 9/11 Commission has written a book related to the terrorist attacks.

But perhaps the most devastating books are those written by family members who lost a loved one that day, such as Lisa Beamer's Let's Roll and Lyz Glick's Your Father's Voice -- both by women whose husbands were among the passengers who seized control of United Airlines Flight 93 from the hijackers. When reading their stories, one doesn't consider literary merit. Rather, it is the commonplace humanity of their losses that grabs hold of a reader. How many times has a spouse left for a business trip, boarded a plane, kissed a young child goodbye? But for Glick and Beamer, their husbands never returned, and the reader is left thinking: That could have been me.

Now Marian Fontana joins this sad genre with her memoir, A Widow's Walk. Fontana's husband, Dave, a firefighter in Brooklyn's elite Squad 1, died in the World Trade Center. Like others who have told their stories of loss, Fontana documents the events of that day and the horrible days that followed. But not only is her material gripping; she is also a writer of considerable talent, and her narrative skill draws the reader in.

An actress, writer and comedienne before Sept. 11, Fontana describes the simplest details with grace and strength: "Outside the sky is so blue, it looks as if it has been ironed."

Sadly, we have become accustomed to the personal dramas of that awful day. It is a challenge to anyone writing about Sept. 11 to breathe something new into the story. But Fontana manages to infuse her book with enough humor, anger and observation to make the anger and loss fresh again.

Sept. 11 happened to be the Fontanas' wedding anniversary, and A Widow's Walk opens with optimism -- the start of a month-long vacation, coffee together at Park Slope's Connecticut Muffin, a trip to the Whitney Museum -- and hope. With their son, Aidan, in kindergarten, Dave is full of ideas for the future: He will pursue art, he will get a master's degree in history. We read these details with a lump in our throats that only grows larger as the morning inches toward 9:58 a.m. and the collapse of the South Tower.

Although Dave Fontana's shift was done, he, like many other firefighters, responded to the call at the World Trade Center that day. As his wife moves through the routine motions of her morning -- dropping Aidan at school, greeting neighbors on the street, sipping coffee while she waits for Dave at Connecticut Muffin -- the reader is already crying for Marian and Aidan and everyone else who blithely lived their lives that morning, unaware of the catastrophe awaiting them. Even after a friend sees Marian and tells her that a plane has crashed into the twin towers, she only wonders for an instant if Dave went, then decides, "It's our anniversary. He's probably at home waiting for me in bed."

But of course, Dave did go. A Widow's Walk documents the excruciating minutes and then hours that led Fontana and her family and friends to this realization. Those hours became days and months until, at book's end, a year had passed. In that year, Fontana attended countless funerals and became an advocate for those left behind -- and, ultimately, president of the 9/11 Widows and Victims' Families Association. She also struggled to capture the depths of loss. "I feel insane with grief," she writes. "I am unabashed in my crying. I wail out loud, the sounds primal and raw against my throat."

Even as Fontana grieves, though, she finds humor -- in the oversized funeral wreaths that became a staple at the firemen's wakes; in the woman in church who said, just two days later, surrounded by people standing to pray for their loved ones to be found: "I pray for all the pets who are waiting for their owners to return"; and in countless other places. She depicts her son's unfeeling and unsympathetic kindergarten teacher and the politicians who surrounded the victims' families with a sharp eye and biting observations.

To read A Widow's Walk is to feel that you are walking beside Marian Fontana. Although the ending is too neat, too tied to the false idea that grief subsides in a year, Fontana cannot be blamed for wanting to end her book on a hopeful note. But the simple fact that a person can endure such grief and still remain standing, and can then write about that journey with wit and honesty and love, is hope enough for all of us. *

Ann Hood's collection of short stories, "An Ornithologist's Guide to Life," is now out in paperback.